The toilet paper paradox

You can't buy it within walking distance

At the risk of sounding dramatic, we have a crisis on our hands. There is nowhere in walking distance downtown to buy toilet paper. In fact, in most communities throughout northeast Indiana the only place to purchase toilet paper (or likely anything on a run-of-the-mill shopping list) is at a local big-box retail chain, which is often isolated from where people actually live. This is a problem.

Brain drain and aging Baby Boomers have dramatically shifted the demographic trajectory of many of our communities. Indiana’s population will increase by 15 percent between 2010 and 2050. During that same time, our 65+ population will grow by 82 percent. Couple this change with Millennials’ preferences for dense, urban villages, and it is easy to see the demand for neighborhoods that provide everyday goods and services (e.g. toilet paper, dental care, fresh produce) within walking distance. This need for livable communities is critical to the future marketability of our neighborhoods, requiring many communities to reevaluate the functionality of their public realm.

These shifting preferences have sparked an interest in measuring livability. Most notably, last year AARP launched a “Livability Index” (livabilityindex.aarp.org) that scores any address in the country from 0 to 100 on seven key indicators: housing, neighborhood, transportation, environment, health, engagement and opportunity. Tools like this not only help cities better understand the performance of their neighborhoods, but also provide a more sophisticated resource for potential residents and business owners to evaluate the quality of life offered by specific locations. But how can we actively improve livability?

Over the last decade, downtown Fort Wayne has seen over $500 million of investment ranging from convention centers to baseball stadiums. For a relatively small city, this is a dizzying level of activity in a short period of time, particularly in the context of the Great Recession. Throughout this time, public and private sector leaders have embraced the importance of building places where people want to be.

However, despite enormous success in civic investments, there are still obvious shortcomings concerning the livability of our downtown. Since 2000, the population living within walking distance of downtown has actually declined. In adjacent neighborhoods, limited housing options, high vacancy rates and perceptions of crime complicate redevelopment efforts. Quality places depend on people – and lots of them. Without them, we will continue to see a shortage of neighborhood businesses able to provide everyday goods and services.

That being said, few regions are reacting to the coming population shifts with as much momentum as northeast Indiana. With this substantial investment in civic improvements, our leaders are dedicated to the need for a vibrant urban core, a strategy rooted in the region’s “Road to One Million” plan currently being supported by Indiana’s Regional Cities Initiative. As this interest continues, specific attention will need to be given to strategies aimed at improving the livability of our core neighborhoods and fostering quality places that engage people of all ages and abilities.

We can start with toilet paper.

First appeared in the July 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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